French police swarm town after suspects spotted

French security forces deployed in a northern town where two suspected brothers were spotted

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French security forces deployed Thursday in a northern town where two brothers suspected of having gunned down 12 people in an Islamist attack on satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo abandoned their car, a police source said.

Anti-terrorist units of the French police force deployed in Villers-Cotterets in the northern Aisne region "where a car was abandoned after being used by the two suspects, who were identified by a witness," a source told Agence France-Presse.

Cherif Kouachi, 32, an Islamist militant well-known to police, and his brother Said, 34, were spotted by the manager of a petrol station in the town about an hour's drive northeast of Paris, who after being robbed "formally identified" the two men.

They were described as "masked, with Kalashnikovs" and what appeared to be a rocket-launcher.

The brothers, who are suspected of having gunned down 12 people on Wednesday in the newspaper attack, have reportedly abandoned their black Citroen on a secondary road in Villers-Cotterets, some 70 kilometers from the French capital.

Said Kouachi, 34, (L) Cherif Kouach, 32 (R), are suspects and are wanted in connection with an attack at a satirical weekly in the French capital that killed at least 12 people. (AFP)
Said Kouachi, 34, (L) Cherif Kouach, 32 (R), are suspects and are wanted in connection with an attack at a satirical weekly in the French capital that killed at least 12 people. (AFP)

French investigators found “a dozen Molotov cocktails and two jihadist flags in the getaway car used in the massacre at a Paris magazine,” according to Agence France-Presse.

"This shows their Islamist radicalization and that they had possibly planned other acts with the petrol bombs," a source close to the case told AFP.

Police sources said one of them had been identified by his identity card, which had been left in the getaway car.

The sources added that Cherif had previously been tried on terrorism charges and served 18 months in prison.

He was charged with criminal association related to a terrorist enterprise in 2005. He had been part of an Islamist cell that enlisted French nationals from a mosque in eastern Paris to go to Iraq to fight Americans in Iraq. He was arrested before leaving for Iraq to join militants.

A third suspect, believed to be the youngest of them, had surrendered to French police earlier.

Hamyd Mourad, born in 1996, turned himself in at Charleville-Mézières, some 230 kilometers northeast of Paris near the Belgium border, an official at the prosecutor’s office told the Associated Press.

BFM TV, citing unidentified sources, said the 18-year-old had decided to go to the police after seeing his name in social media. It said other arrests had taken place in circles linked to the two brothers.

The other two who are still on the run were identified as brothers 33-year-old Said Kouachi, 35-year-old Cherif Kouachi.

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France's prime minister said on Thursday he feared the militants involved in the Paris shooting could strike again as a manhunt for two men widened across the country.

Police published pictures of the two brothers calling for witnesses and describing the two men as “armed and dangerous.”

The police source said anti-terrorism police searching for the suspects and links to them had carried out searches in Reims, Strasbourg and Paris as part of the investigation.

There were scattered, unconfirmed reports of sightings of the assailants and police increased their presence at entry points to Paris. One police source talked of a type of "psychosis" setting in with various reports and rumors, but police had to take each of them seriously.

Public anger

Tens of thousands joined impromptu rallies across France in memory of the victims and to support freedom of expression.

The government declared the highest state of alert, tightening security at transport hubs, religious sites, media offices and department stores as the search for the assailants got under way.

Some Parisians expressed fears about the effect of the attack on community relations in France, which has Europe’s biggest Muslim population.

“This is bad for everyone - particularly for Muslims despite the fact that Islam is a fine religion. It risks making a bad situation worse,” Cecile Electon, an arts worker who described herself as an atheist, told Reuters at a vigil on Paris’s Place de la Republique attended by 35,000 people.

Charlie Hebdo (Charlie Weekly) is well known for courting controversy with satirical attacks on political and religious leaders of all faiths and has published numerous cartoons ridiculing the Prophet Mohammad. Jihadists online repeatedly warned that the magazine would pay for its ridicule.

The last tweet on its account mocked Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the militant Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which has taken control of large swathes of Iraq and Syria and called for “lone wolf” attacks on French soil.

There was no claim of responsibility. However, a witness quoted by 20 Minutes daily newspaper said one of the assailants cried out before getting into his car: “Tell the media that it is al-Qaeda in Yemen!”

Supporters of ISIS and other militant groups hailed the attack on Internet sites. Governments throughout Europe have expressed fear that fighters returning from Iraq or Syria could launch attacks in their home countries.

“Today the French Republic as a whole was the target,” President Francois Hollande said in a prime-time evening television address. He declared a national day of mourning on Thursday.

[With Agencies]

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